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Some of Our Basic Instincts May Actually Imperil Us Socially

Research examines social threat and how we respond to others

Key points

  • Social anxiety is common, affecting about 7 percent of people.
  • Social exclusion evokes negative feelings, and how we cope is important for individual well-being and social relationships.
  • People who feel greater threat after being excluded tend to make negative moral judgments of those who excluded them.
  • Moral disapproval plays an important role in relationships, serving to protect from disappointment—but at a high cost.

Social anxiety is common, in the everyday sense and as a clinical condition. Clinically, it’s characterized by severe anxiety before, during, and after social and performance (e.g. work, public speaking) experiences, with fears of being harshly judged, high levels of embarrassment, hard knocks on self-esteem, social withdrawal, and isolation.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than 7 percent of US adults have social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety is associated with childhood maltreatment (Boulton, 2011), notably bullying (Coyle et al., 2021), and a greater likelihood of difficulties including social avoidance and stuttering (Blood & Blood, 2016), which often undermine social relationships.

How social threat affects perception of others

Social anxiety undermines self-esteem and encourages people to believe that others think the worst of them. This makes avoidance of social situations appealing, and it makes social and professional performance challenging. After the fact, people with social anxiety think back over interactions and imagine the worst. Unchecked, social anxiety can create a vicious cycle, amplified on social media platforms where threat and reactions to threat get crowd-sourced, as highlighted by Henderson and Schnall (2021) in their recent paper on social threat and moral condemnation in the journal Nature, Scientific Reports.

They note that people have a “sociometer” gauging how self-esteem varies with social status. We monitor those around us for social acceptance. Our social self-preservation system monitors the environment for threats, raising levels of the stress hormone cortisol during tasks involving social evaluation. Vigilance may help us to avoid harm, but because it is biased toward the negative, it threatens to undermine positive relatedness.

To understand social exclusion and moral disapproval, Henderson and Schnall conducted three consecutive studies. In the first, subjects played the classic social exclusion game Cyberball, used by psychologists to probe the terrible feeling of being left out, as when you are the last one in the playground picked for the team.

Subjects play a game of computer catch with other players. At some point the other players (really the computer) stop throwing the ball to them. They then complete a measure of moral violation, Moral Foundations Vignettes, that probes the key dimensions of harm, fairness, sanctity, loyalty, and authority and yields an overall measure of Moral Disapproval. Finally, they are asked about 20 items related to insecurity, being in control, exclusion and belonging, and meaningfulness of existence.

While social exclusion itself did not affect moral outcomes, the researchers found that social exclusion increased social threat, which in turn increased the participants' moral disapproval of others. To put it another way, when others exclude us, we feel threatened and tend to respond with moral disapproval of others; we experience harm, unfairness, and a violation of the social contract we hold sacred (sanctity).

The second study replicated the first, adding a measure of social status (the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status). It confirmed that social threat following exclusion drives moral condemnation. Exclusion increased moral disapproval of perceived harm. Interestingly, social status had no effect on threat or condemnation—although high social status might have been thought to exert a protective effect.

The third study built upon the first two to include a measure of anticipated social threat. Using the Social Anxiety Questionnaire (SAQ), participants were assessed on five components: public speaking in front of authority figures, interactions with attractive others, responses to expressing dissatisfaction to others (e.g. conflict avoidance or fear of making others angry), fears of criticism and embarrassment, and difficulty with strangers. A measure of loneliness, the UCLA Loneliness Scale, was included.

Social anxiety was significantly correlated with moral disapproval on harm, fairness, authority, and loyalty, more than on sanctity. Social status and loneliness did not correlate with social threat or moral disapproval, further supporting the unique role of social threat.

Pulling it all together to make better choices

This study found that when participants felt socially threatened, moral disapproval of others was activated. Folks with higher levels of social anxiety are prone to morally judge as a way to shore up self-esteem and reduce feelings of threat, possibly through moral superiority.

However, moral superiority alienates others, creating a negative cycle. We may feel inferior to others and at the same time morally superior, further widening the rift and increasing mistrust and vigilance. Social status does not appear to buffer the relationship between social threat and moral disapproval, suggesting that success may not necessarily protect against social anxiety, though it often serves as a mask behind which people hide such vulnerabilities.

The study authors point out that disproportionate collective moral disapproval may create a "dog pile" of hostile condemnation on social media platforms in response to perceived social threat. Add in the relative anonymity and loss of individuality of such platforms and you get a recipe for unbridled large group conflict, prejudice, and mass hatred.

From an evolutionary point of view, social failure is associated with being cast out of the tribe, into physical danger. Social threat may be on some level tantamount to physical death. Research on terror management theory (TMT) finds that when death anxiety (“mortality salience”) increases, we respond with coping mechanisms to protect self-esteem, deploying both personal and cultural defenses. Cultural defenses might include evoking a protective worldview such as religious beliefs about an afterlife (“literal immortality”) or views on leaving behind a meaningful legacy of altruistic work (“symbolic immortality”).

It makes a huge difference whether we feel safe or we feel threatened with someone, of course. But there is more to it than individual feelings, as our inherently social species grapples with digital relatedness, population explosion, and greater interdependence than ever before. If we don't understand how much we can threaten each other, and learn to manage our response when aroused by threat, the consequences will be dire.

When social anxiety evokes moral disapproval of others, self-soothing followed by reappraisal may allow individuals to preserve self-esteem effectively while also reserving judgment,. The same techniques enable individuals to get the facts of a situation before deciding that others are really unable to meet their needs. By hitting pause, armed with self-knowledge, we can avoid hostile withdrawal or excessive deference, pivoting to flexible-adaptive responses to interpersonal problems.

References

Gordon W. Blood, Ingrid M. Blood, Long-term Consequences of Childhood Bullying in Adults who Stutter: Social Anxiety, Fear of Negative Evaluation, Self-esteem, and Satisfaction with Life, Journal of Fluency Disorders, Volume 50, 2016, Pages 72-84, ISSN 0094-730X, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfludis.2016.10.002.

Michael J. Boulton (2013) Associations between adults' recalled childhood bullying victimization, current social anxiety, coping, and self-blame: evidence for moderation and indirect effects, Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 26:3, 270-292, DOI: 10.1080/10615806.2012.662499.

Henderson, R.K., Schnall, S. Social threat indirectly increases moral condemnation via thwarting fundamental social needs. Sci Rep 11, 21709 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-00752-2.

Coyle, S., Malecki, C.K. & Emmons, J. Keep Your Friends Close: Exploring the Associations of Bullying, Peer Social Support, and Social Anxiety. Contemp School Psychol 25, 230–242 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40688-019-00250-3.

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